Creative Inquiry

Project Spotlights

Exploring the Kanji World Japanese Culture

With the world's second largest economy and a focus on technological innovation, Japan is a country with its eyes set on the future. Therefore, it is no surprise that Clemson students from all majors are investing their time in studying the language of this island nation.

Yet there is one hurdle that has discouraged many students from furthering their Japanese education. Kanji, the Japanese writing system adopted from Chinese pictographs, is especially difficult to learn. One Creative Inquiry team has found a way to cater to American students' way of learning and make studying kanji more accessible. Associate professor Toshiko Kishimoto and her Creative Inquiry team are working to create an application for Android phones that will bridge the gap between U.S. college students and thousands of kanji characters.

While other kanji applications are available (such as Kanji Flip, KanjiPop, and ShinKanji), the Creative Inquiry group found that the weak point of current resources is that they teach kanji the way one would teach Japanese children in Japan. A new method is needed to connect American-born students to this essential element of the Japanese language.

Ian Moore, a senior mechanical engineering student who grew up learning Japanese, pointed out that when learning Japanese "probably 80-90 percent of the struggle is learning kanji." James Wells, a junior computer science major who has studied the language for five semesters, stated that they are "trying to get [students] through the 101 and 102 levels to get people past that [kanji] barrier."

In 2012, the group participated in the International Conference of Japanese Language Education (ICJLE), where they presented their project in Japanese to educators from Japan. Professors and publishing executives were interested in the extensive research they had conducted. This opportunity allowed them to learn that many Japanese educators were bewildered as to how to teach kanji to Americans who do not live in Japan. The students had researched how to teach kanji to Americans by conducting surveys at universities such as Notre Dame, Georgia Tech and the University of Southern California. They found that outside of class most students study 15-30 minutes at a time; on average students studied 3-4 times outside of class per week. This mobile app will make it easier for students to study after class.

Their final goal is for the app to be advanced enough to prepare students for the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), which tests students' knowledge of about 2,500 kanji characters. From the survey, Moore pointed out that "one inspiring piece of data is that once somebody gets to know about 200 kanji, there is a huge spike in their kanji knowledge. Getting from 200-400 isn't as difficult as getting from 0 to 200." After about 3 semesters, the average student knew 150 characters; and by the fourth semester more than 300 characters had been mastered. The team presented at the Southeast Association of Teachers of Japanese in March 2013 and created a functioning app by April 2013. Moore believes that this project will motivate students to support the Japanese language program. "If someone can go in to learn Japanese, and not see learning kanji as being a barrier, we will probably have a higher retention rate."

By: Saahirah Goodwin (Decipher Issue 2, Fall 2013)